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 Vandenberg Wreck Is The Monster Of Key West Diving Trips  

On May 27, 2009, the Vandenberg wreck became the second largest artificial reef in the world when she was scuttled off Key West Florida, sinking in 1 minute and 44 seconds.

This is one of the best scuba diving Florida Keys wreck sites for a number of reasons.

First she is accommodates all levels of scuba diving certification because of the way she was prepped.

Even Florida Keys snorkeling trips are possible out to this exciting Florida shipwreck.

She also allows more advanced divers the opportunity to go diving into the wreck.

This is an opportunity that's not always possible at some of the other wreck diving Florida Keys sites.

However, one of the best reasons is that this massive wreck brings to the Lower Keys the kind of exciting diving trip that the Spiegel Grove provides when diving Key Largo.

Naval History Of The USS Vandenberg

Built in 1943, the Vandenberg was originally named USS General Harry Taylor (AP-145) before her debut launch on October 10, 1943.

Capable of speeds upwards of 17 knots, this massive ship carried 200 men and her 636 compartments ensured she had all the amenities of home.

Her facilities included a theater, laundry, lounges, storerooms, staterooms, hospital, offices, rec areas, and more.

Purchased by the Navy on March 29, 1944 she spent a number of years transporting men, supplies, and equipment around the world - during World War II and after.

The Vandenberg was also stricken from the Naval Register on several occasions only to be redeployed.

In 1961 she became the property of the United States Air Force and this is when she was given her famous name of USAFS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg. On July 1, 1964 she was returned to the navy and became the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg (T-AGM-10).

In this exchange she served as a missile range instrumentation ship where she was deployed to Senegal as part of the Global Atmospheric Research experiment. Her duties included tracking and analyzing the reentry bodies of ballistic missiles in their terminal phase of test flights.

She spent the remainder of her military career tracking missiles and space craft that were reentering the atmosphere until 1983 when she retired. On April 29, 1993 she was stricken permanently from the Naval Register.

From here she was transferred to the Maritime Administration and on February 13, 2007, the approval to place her as a Florida Keys artificial reef was finally received.

However, before her sinking, the USS Vandenberg had time to perform one final duty. She served as the starring prop in the horror movie "Virus" where she portrayed a Russian vessel.

Vandenberg Wreck Location
and Wreck Diving Condition

Without question this is one of the best Key West diving sites you'll encounter. With an impressively massive length of 524 feet, the Vandenberg Wreck is almost the equivalent of 2 football fields stacked end to end.

Measuring 10 stories high, her wide beam stretches 71.6 feet across and she rests fully upright at a depth of 140 feet.

The Vandenberg Sinking
Courtesy of YouTube and mmsutton

Even though she's one of the Florida Keys shipwrecks that's deep, it's possible for any level of scuba certification to go wreck diving on her. This is because of her tremendous height and design.

More advanced novice divers can descend to the shallower levels and wreck dive her upper infrastructure, while divers with advanced and technical scuba diving certification can explore the very depths of her bowels.

If you don't have any dive maps for the Vandenberg wreck it would be a good idea to get at least one in advance. This is a massive dive site and preplanning your dive trip is essential.

Maps, especially for very large dive sites, can be essential in helping to avoid Florida Keys diving accidents. You should have at least an overview diving map but with the Vandenberg the maps are often broken down into sections, bow, stern, deck plan and overview, even 3D.

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What's particularly interesting about this Key West diving site is the amount of care and planning that went into creating this colossal underwater "event".

Event is an appropriate word because of the sheer size and magnitude of the Vandenberg.

Those involved with prepping the Vandenberg Wreck had envisioned an artificial reef that would be interesting at all depths. They wanted scuba divers with any level of scuba certification to benefit from an experience at this Florida wreck diving site.

The design of her final form included cutting and removing portions of her top structure and welding them to other locations, to create continual interest throughout all regions of this spectacular Key West scuba diving adventure.

The very top of the Vandenberg Wreck superstructure is where the vast majority of her most interesting wreck diving features are located. These points reach to within the allowable distance of 40 - 50 feet from the water's surface.

Wreck Diving The USS Vandenberg
Courtesy of YouTube
2009 Footage By Jerry J. Petru & 2010 Footage Shot By Margo Cavis
Produced by Digital Elves & Edited by Margo Cavis

The top section of this wreck diving Key West site has been well prepped, so it's clean of any entanglements. This makes it much safer for novice divers who'll reach to this upper depth. The fact that her superstructure rises so high and is so clean, is why advanced novice divers can claim they've been on a Vandenberg dive.

Like the Spiegel Grove, it's physically impossible to see the complete size of this ship from any angle or height.

Anyone who's been Vandenberg diving knows that it's impossible to become fully oriented with the ship on just one dive trip. Numerous Key West dive trips will be required to understand the scope of this underwater wreck and explore all of her features in detail.

This is why getting Vandenberg dive maps helps put the large portions of this popular Key West scuba diving site into perspective.

Of course you'll want to go wreck diving and explore all of her features, but you'll have to make arrangements for multiple wreck dive trips to do so and studying her in advance will help you determine which part of her to tackle first.

In regard to her bow, one of the interesting points on this Key West scuba dive will be a stop off at the wheelhouse. At the top is a telescope that was part of her star-tracking system. Behind her bridge, you'll also notice that there are two radar dishes, and a much larger radar dish is situated nearby.

Moving further along when diving into the wreck, you'll encounter her crow's nest on the foremast and the lower portion of her smokestack is here as well. The other portion of the smokestack is one of her "relocated" pieces that was moved to her stern. It's situated on top of the weather balloon hangar for symmetry and to be compliant with maritime restrictions.

When scuba diving her stern the Vandenberg stern map will help prep you and give you a handle on what to expect on that part of the dive.

Divers with higher levels of scuba diving certification will find that the rest of the ship has been well cleaned and prepped. Points of entry to interesting sections include stairwells, hallways, and cargo holds.

These are easily accessed, but when diving into the wreck, scuba divers need to be careful so they don't kick up silt. An area that was once visible can quickly become obscured. This will make orientation difficult as it can alter your sense of direction and even cause panic. With a ship of this size it's very easy to get lost and loose valuable time necessary for decompression.

Great swim throughs are found at about the 100 foot mark on the Vandenberg Wreck. These were cut into her hull to help her quickly sink in an upright position. As you move through these deeper swim throughs, you'll likely encounter eel, goliath grouper, and barracuda.

The USS Vandenberg not only has had a positive impact on the marine life by providing additional structure, she's become a major scuba diving Key West drawing card. Wreck divers from around the world flock to explore the mysteries of her dark recesses and challenging depths. This increase in scuba diving traffic has helped to boost the Key West FL economy.

Vandenberg Buoy Map

Vandenberg Buoy Map
Courtesy of

At-A-Glance Wreck Diving Description
and GPS Coordinates

USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg (T-AGM-10)
Between six and seven miles south of Key West International Airport, between Western Sambo Reef and Sand Key, and south of Hawks Channel marker #32
GPS Co-ordinates
24 27.164N 081 43.594W
5 surface buoys and 1 submerged buoy
Novice - Technical
Dive Site Description
Full upright position. 524 feet long, 71.6 foot beam, 10 stories high
Marine Life
Goliath grouper, eel, shark, snapper, barracuda, stony and gorgonian coral, damselfish, angelfish, mackerel, sea sponges, hogfish

Since the Vandenberg Wreck is massive, proper orientation should be a major part of any Key West dive trip. It's both critical and lifesaving that you take the time to find out about the conditions before you descend. Once you reach your descent, pay attention to where you are, so you can find your way back up.

Make sure all your diving equipment is with you, and that you've brought extra scuba diving equipment such as a scuba diving knife to cut any entanglements you may encounter.

Even though the Vandenberg Wreck was well cleaned, entanglements develop. Fishing lines and netting develop over the years and mementos and items from other divers are often left behind causing unforeseen danger and challenges.

You should also have a underwater flashlight so you can see where you're going, especially if you're planning on diving into the wreck. You'll also need to watch your depth and make sure that you're not going below the level you're prepared or have scuba certification for.

A wreck dive of this magnitude can be overwhelming and it can take your focus off some of the important life savings skills you've learned.

Remember to watch for warning signs and don't go beyond your level of scuba diving certification or place yourself in a position where you could go past your time limit.

Plan and study this Key West dive in advance, and don't forget where you came down, so you can go back up the same line to your boat. Timing is critical when wreck diving something as monstrous as the Vandenberg wreck.

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Local Weather Zip Codes

Key Largo - 33037
Marathon - 33050
Key West - 33040